By Thom Little, Ph.D.

Recently, I joined legislative and corporate leaders from around the nation in Newport, Rhode Island for “America’s Clean Energy Future: Finding the Right Balance for Your State.” Considering recent stories about climate change and rising temperatures as well as the partisan divide that seems to define this issue, I approached the conference with some trepidation. Would the presenters offer hope for the future of energy and our environment? Would they tell us that the costs of switching to renewables in both jobs and energy reliability would be just too high? Could we have a reasonable discussion about such a politically charged issue?

Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. For a day and a half, leaders from both sides of the aisle had a rational discussion about the opportunities, challenges and possibilities of America’s energy future. Presenters offered hope. Dr. Amory Lovins, a longtime advocate for moving away from carbon-based sources, provided a LOT of evidence (over 100 slides!) that improving technologies and structural efficiencies would make the shift to renewables not only likely, but profitable. The world is moving toward more sustainable energy sources because they are cheaper, faster, and better, according to Dr. Lovins. He was followed by Dr. Sarah Mills, who argued that with the appropriate policies and incentives, wind, solar and nuclear energy could be a boon for rural America which has suffered significant economic and demographic losses in recent years. She noted that many of the states where these industries are making great strides are governed by conservatives. That energizes me!

In response to Dr. Mills, we offered a session entitled “Roadblocks to a Clean Sustainable Energy Future” that we expected would focus on things like storage, transmission and siting issues that could sidetrack the transition to renewables. The panelists instead chose to discuss these issues not as roadblocks that might stop progress, but instead as challenges to overcome and opportunities for governments and businesses to find creative solutions. Looking specifically at opportunities for states to make a difference, Dr. Barry Rabe reminded us that states, especially populous ones, can influence federal policy. More importantly, he noted that between 2015 and 2021, states adopted more than 400 clean energy bills. He cited very similar policies in conservative Georgia and liberal California. Maybe energy policy is not as divisive as we thought, and I am energized.

On Saturday, we heard from leaders from four politically and geographically diverse states (Michigan, Rhode Island, West Virginia and Wyoming) that offered further proof of states leading the way. While policies and foci were different in each of these states, all four are moving away from carbon-based energy and toward more sustainable sources, with Michigan investing heavily in solar energy, and Rhode Island and Wyoming looking toward wind. In West Virginia, the state’s coal-powered plants are becoming increasingly expensive to operate, so the legislature recently lifted a ban on building nuclear plants and passed legislation to encourage the solar industry. If West Virginia, where coal was king for decades, can make the shift toward more sustainable energy sources, then there seems to be viable options for all states. I am energized.

This session was followed by a discussion of how recent federal policies are making the shift to renewables easier with incentives for states that make the transition and regulations on those that do not. The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act are considered “gamechangers” for energy policy by Democrats and Republicans alike. More than $1.5 trillion dollars are available to state governments in the form of project and formula grants for everything from charging stations to environmental remediation to job retraining for states and localities that have the capacity to propose and complete projects. And states from California to Iowa are taking advantage of these opportunities, and I am energized.

As the conference came to an end, I, and many others came away believing that despite the serious challenges we face, states can lead the way on energy policy. And as US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse reminded us, with the current chaos in Congress, state legislatures may well have to lead the way. The success of this SLLF program may have best been summed up by a legislative leader, who commented, “The program was balanced. Even if I didn’t always agree with the presenters on a topic, the presenters gave both pros and cons so that there were issues and ideas I could still learn from each presenter.” In today’s political environment where policymakers often argue past each other and seldom listen to the other side, you can’t ask for more than that. I am fired up – which is even more than energized!